If you have seen recent paparazzi photos of Jaden Smith holding a box of water to his ear, you may have thought — not unreasonably — that the 18-year-old teen mystic was just attempting to commune with the H2O molecules, or perhaps pioneering a new brand of particularly fashionable earwear. As it so happens, he’s just been doing some stealth viral marketing for his ecofriendly water-bottle concern.
“People in Atlanta rap music videos put money to their ear,” he explains. “I just put it to my ear because I love rap music, but I wanna put out a different message.”
The water-bottle business was a long time coming. “When I was 11, I told everyone I wanted to make a really sustainable water bottle for humanity,” Jaden tells me, nonchalantly. We are traipsing through the woods outside of Glens Falls, the small town in upstate New York where Just Water’s distinctive rectangular paper water bottles are sourced and packaged, before being sent off to Whole Foods and other supermarkets nationally. While the Smith family have long been listed as investors, only recently has the extent of their involvement become public; yesterday, a small group of reporters were bussed three hours from New York City to see the finished product.
“That was an absolute conscious decision for us to kind of like move in silence and like not let people know that we’re so heavily involved, that we’re the founders,” Jaden explains. “Now we’re just letting people know in a really gradual way. Like, Hey, here’s what’s happening, here’s how human life is affecting our environment, and here’s an alternative.”
Jaden is dressed in Adidas Ultra Boosts and pink socks, a denim jacket from his own MSFTSrep brand that says “Volunteer Firefighter,” and a maroon baseball cap reading “Non Violent Direct Action Program.” He darts through the forest like a particularly stylish wood nymph, climbing between the bars of a gate while the rest of us go around, and offering me his hand to climb down a stony ledge. All of a sudden, Will Smith — did I mention Will Smith is here? — bounds up, enthusiastically. “Let’s take a group picture!” Will says. “Everyone come in for a photo.”
Will is both a warm and intimidating presence. Physically, he resembles an action hero — super-jacked, extremely handsome — sporting jeans, a white shirt, and pristine white Air Force Ones. In all other ways, he resembles a dad chaperoning a school field trip. “Cheese!” He guffaws as we get our photo taken. “That’s so bizarre, right? Why do people say ‘cheese’?” (Today I learn that Will Smith really loves dad jokes. “One of the major issues we’ve been dealing with is there’s a Bigfoot in these woods,” he says. We all laugh.)
Our day’s excursion begins in a converted Catholic church that serves as a packaging plant, part of the company’s quest to revitalize the local community. Here we learn the origins of Just: Jaden went surfing and was alarmed by ocean plastic pollution; the Smiths’ longtime friend and Glens Falls native Drew Fitzgerald was called in to help bring the idea to life. In an ideal world, we learn, everyone would drink tap water, but since bottled-water consumption continues to spike, Just is attempting to offer a practical and ecofriendly solution, with bottles sold for an economical 99 cents. The water tastes, to my palate, like standard New York City tap water. Jaden, who says he can “definitely taste the difference in different kinds of water,” describes it as “crisp and natural.”
We don hairnets and head deeper into the plant to watch a Tetra Pak machine bottle the water. Jaden gets up close to scrutinize the bottling process; I get up close to scrutinize Jaden, who has artfully folded his dreadlocks under a hairnet and then fastened his baseball cap over the top. I ask if we can take a selfie holding the Just bottles up to our ears, and he obliges. “It’s lit,” he says approvingly.
We then take a short bus ride up to the woods to visit the well site. Jim Siplon, the COO, sings the company’s praises, including the fact that they pay six times the municipal tax rate to access the town’s water, and tells us how hard they have worked to keep their business quiet and unobtrusive. He gestures around at the trees: “That’s the sound of our operation 90 percent of the time.” We close our eyes and try to imagine silence, which is difficult, because Jaden’s iPhone has been playing DJ Snake & Bipolar Sunshine’s “Future Part 2” for the better part of two minutes. Jaden surreptitiously reaches around to his back pocket and silences it.
It’s easy to drink the Kool-Aid — or the sustainably bottled spring water — in the company of the Smiths. They are both good listeners who speak with intense conviction and clarity. Initially, Jaden stands around with chin down and arms folded, the eternal stance of jaded teenage boys, but he perks up when we start talking about the project. His favorite phrases are “it’s lit!” “100 percent,” “awesome,” “that’s hot,” and “no way.” He appears to be best friends with all the Just employees, frequently embracing them in hugs and effusive clasped handshakes. I hear him refer to someone as “brewski.” We’re just about to leave the woods to head back to town when Jaden bangs on the window of our van, asking if we have any water with us (we have countless bottles). “It’s lit!” says Jaden. “The lit way. Hydraaaaaation.”
Our final stop of the day is lunch at a café in downtown Glens Falls. Jaden scans the street approvingly. “I love it here, it’s sick,” he says, holding the door for us. A group of us sit to eat, and Will plops down with us. He engages us, for the next 45 minutes, in lively lunch conversation. Over the course of this lunch, we learn a lot of things about him. We learn that he’s still friends with Alfonso Ribeiro (Fresh Prince’s Carlton) and just texted him on his birthday. We learn that of all his movies, he wishes Concussion had gotten more attention. We learn that he had to convince the studio to let him choke a dog in I Am Legend. Mostly, we learn that he is a very proud dad.
“Jaden is an interesting, funny, beautiful spirit. I’m really proud to have that one as a child,” says Will, as he plows through a plate of rice and pasta, then scrambled eggs and potatoes, topped off by a slice of grilled chicken. (I note, pedantically, that he has not expunged the plastic stirrer from his coffee cup.)
He echoes his son’s declaration that they have no desire to make a celebrity brand. “Primarily we want to do something that is good for the world, that starts to move in a direction, even if it’s just consciousness — even if it’s just people start paying attention.”
As the day wraps up, I finally get to talk to Jaden one-on-one. I ask if he feels a primal connection to water, which seems like something he wouldn’t mind being asked, and he nods effusively. “I feel totally connected to water. I love water. I feel like its one of the most spiritual and interesting elements on Earth. If you freeze anything on Earth, it will get smaller, but water expands when you freeze it. It’s the only thing that expands when you freeze it! It’s literally the only thing. Even in some trees, water will flow up the bark of the tree and go against gravity. Water does so many things that are just unnatural and not normal,” he explains. Still, he says, that’s not why he got into the project, and then he launches into a rather complicated and technical explanation of the hazards of petroleum-based plastics and CO2 emissions.
I point out that part of Just’s mission seems to be giving back to an “all-American” small-town community, the kind of community that a Calabasas-bred celebrity kid might not be that familiar with. He nods. “It’s not really hard for me to balance,” he says, “because we’re all humans at the end of the day. We all grew up in different worlds, but that doesn’t mean we can’t relate at the end of the day. We’re all thirsty. I’m thirsty, and I was still forced to drink out of plastic. Not even forced — I had no alternatives.”
Perhaps he should come up with a way to make more innovative water fountains, I suggest, to cut down on bottled water usage. “Literally, the next time you see me I’m gonna be like: I have this new water fountain company, OMG. It’s called Just Fountains. It’s super cool,” he agrees. “I feel like the thing with water fountains is people not really trusting a water source that’s been outside. You always wonder if people are spitting on them and stuff, or, Is this a pigeon’s bath?” Jaden’s mind appears to be whirring. “I feel like there has to be a way for us to innovate on water fountains.”
Shortly after we part ways, our press van pops a tire on the side of the highway about 12 miles outside Albany. I know in my heart if Will and Jaden had been there, we would have been on the road in no time. Perhaps Will could have patched up the tire using a trick he picked up on set, or Jaden could have fashioned a new ecofriendly tire out of twigs. I put my bottle of Just to my ear, like Jaden taught me, and mouth his name into the wind, attempting to conjure up his presence, but his air-conditioned Navigator SUV is nowhere to be found. Three hours later – tired, hungry, but extremely well-hydrated – a rescue bus finally arrives to take us home.